Michael Byers, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia and is a frequent commentator on defence matters, has written, in the National Post, on the sad state of the Royal Canadian Navy.
He points out that there are effectively no ships available to support any request from NATO, let alone fulfill normal domestic requirements. As Matt Gurney wrote in the same newspaper, “Canada does not currently meet even the modest military thresholds required to provide domestic security, and on the international scene, threats materialize faster than we can muster the strength to respond to them”.
Against this background is a previous decision by the RCN to discard a planned $100M mid-life refit plan for the twelve vessels of the Kingston class.
The Kingston class consists of 12 coastal defence vessels. Also known as Maritime Coastal Defence Vessels (MCDV) these multi-role vessels were built and launched from the mid- to late-1990s and are largely crewed by members of the Naval Reserve.
Their main missions are coastal surveillance, sovereignty patrol, route survey, and training. They were designed with a minesweeping role in mind however this role has diminished as a result of the evolving nature of mine warfare and not having been equipped with the appropriate equipment necessary to undertake the mission.
As with all naval ships the Kingston-class patrol vessels represent some design compromises. The program was conceived to advance the use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment and construction techniques in a ship designed to military specifications.
The engines, although quite powerful and fuel-efficient, are being used with a hull shape designed for minesweeping. This prevents the ship from achieving a high speed compared to the patrol vessels of other nations, which are considerably faster. However, the Kingston’s' top speed is faster than that of most mine warfare vessels and is comparable to most large non-naval seagoing vessels.
Unlike other Mine warfare vessels the Kingston class was built with conventional steel hulls. The vessels are, however, equipped with a magnetic degaussing system that allows the ship's magnetic signature to be manipulated to minimize vulnerability to magnetic mines.
In an attempt to make the vessels truly ‘multi-role’ the Kingston class are designed to carry up to three 20-foot (6.1 m) ISO containers with power hookups on the open deck aft in order to embark mission-specific payloads. The available modules included:
· Indal Technologies AN/SLQ 38 deep mechanical minesweeping systems
· MDA Ltd. AN/SQS 511 heavy-weight high-definition route survey systems
· ISE Ltd. Trailblazer 25 bottom object inspection vehicle
· ISE Ltd. HYSUB 50 deep seabed intervention system
· Fullerton and Sherwood Ltd. 6-man, 2-compartment containerized diving systems
· Naval engineered 6-person accommodation modules
· MDA Ltd. Interim Remote Mine hunting and Disposal System
The original mid-life refit plan was intended to allow the retention of the ‘mid-lifed’ vessels through 2045–2055, however the RCN concluded that the money would be better spent in acquiring a new platform. It was hoped that the MCDVs would be replaced by new vessels to enter service in 2020.
As of this date, a contract for the construction of new ships to replace the Kingston class has not been signed. The only new ships, on the distant horizon, configured for a similar mission are the Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS) for whom current design constraints will render them not much more useful then the Kingston class for the surveillance and sovereignty roles and of no use at all for the reserve training and mine warfare roles.
As it stands now the Canadian Navy is hard pressed for both recruits and operating funds as well as the numbers of ships necessary to maintain the ‘critical mass’ necessary to have a force of use to Canada.
The solution to this problem can be found in our past. Our Navy needs to reconsider the corvette. With their storied history vessels of this class could fit into the present and future of the RCN. With modern corvettes, the Navy would acquire vessels able to fulfill its domestic waters patrol mandate far more economically than its current major warships and fulfill many of the overseas tasks we are currently engaged in.
Needless to say, this is not the first time that this remedy has been advocated. On 2 June 2003, Mr. John Dewar testified to the Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence that Canada should purchase a corvette-sized ship, also called a ‘cutter,’ for use by the navy in the performance of law enforcement functions.
He recommended a vessel measuring 75 meters that was able to operate in a high sea-state, move quickly (25 knots minimum using diesel propulsion), and remain at sea for 30 days. He said that a landing deck or hanger for a large maritime helicopter like the Sea King is essential. A helicopter would assist in the identification of ships and extend the visible range from the vessel.
A modern corvette, which meets many of Mr. Dewar’s criteria, such as the STYX Canadian Marine PV85 has a core ships company of 35 compared to a Halifax class frigate which requires a crew of 180. It stands to reason that a PV85-based corvette would be substantially less expensive to operate then a frigate with a hull almost twice as long and a displacement 2.5 times greater.
The Danish Knud Rasmussen-class is another example of an offshore patrol vessel which would meet Canadian needs. The ships' normal tasks include fisheries inspections, environment protection, search and rescue, sovereignty enforcement, icebreaker assignments, towage and salvage operations and general assistance to the Danish and Greenland governments (including police tasks).
Like the original Kingston MCDVs the Knud Rasmussen is designed to take multiple mission modules, in this case using StanFlex modular mission payload slots (one on the foredeck, the other aft of the superstructure), which can be fitted with a multi-purpose gun, surface-to-air missiles, or ASW torpedoes, along with other non-weapon payloads. Another two container positions are "prepared for" but not installed.
Mercantile standards were used for the original MCDVs, primarily as a cost-cutting measure. Just as commercial-off-the-shelf parts and equipment were used wherever possible, the hull was adapted from an existing civilian design for an offshore supply vessel. The design used steel in its construction, a material familiar to most Canadian shipyards. These standards are common in the kind of modern corvettes being considered and the ships could easily be built in Canada.
That they could be built is not the question, the question is “will they be built?”
It should be pointed out that the RCN analyses that lead to the decision to cancel the MCDV mid-life update was badly flawed. The belief by that service that the Department of National Defence can consistently and reliably procure new ships is not based in reality. If the RCN had understood, as an institution, that it was far more likely to be able to find funding and consensus for a mid-life update then for entirely new ships then they would have made better choices, or at least choices more likely to have tangible results.
If, in the future, the Government and the DND/CF re-acquire the ability to consistently and efficiently procure new warships for our Navy then Corvettes would be a useful addition to a useable fleet.
Sorry, NATO — We’re fresh out of warships
Matt Gurney: Ukraine crisis shows need for larger Canadian military
The Kingston Class: Mid-Life or Move Over for MCDVs?
Kingston-class coastal defence vessel
Arctic/Offshore Patrol Ships (AOPS)
The Arctic Offshore Patrol Ship
A USEABLE NAVY
Canada's Coastlines: The Longest Under-Defended Borders in the World
STX Canadian Marine/STX US Marine
Knud Rasmussen-Class Ocean Patrol Vessels, Denmark